Mary Kenny: 'Birthstrikers pledge to remain childless for the planet's sake. But does it add up?'
Blythe Pepino is aged 33 and after attending a lecture given by the environmental group Extinction Rebellion, she made a decision: for the sake of the planet, she would never have children. So she started a movement called Birthstrike, which is attracting others of a like mind – a pledge to remain childless to help reduce carbon footprints.
Plenty of people are childless for personal reasons. Others reduce their offspring production to one or, as Prince Harry puts it, “two, max”. In all developed European societies, fertility is falling. The Hungarians are in such a panic about low fertility that they’re trying to reverse the trend with tax and cash incentives for families to breed. Japan is so far below replacement level that old people are given dolls and robots because they’re so lonely for family contact.
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Birthstrike is either right on trend or else its exertions are unnecessary, since the tendency to reduce family size is already evident.
What amazes me, though, is the sense of certainty that accompanies these pledges. How does Prince Harry know that he can have two children? Hasn’t he heard of secondary infertility (SI), now the subject of medical conferences? The writer Maggie O’Farrell could tell him about the anguish of struggling to conceive a second child after quite easily having a first, although there was no medical reason for her SI. The problem is growing: in the US, there were 1.8 million cases in 1995, but 3.3 million in 2010.
When it comes to ‘family planning’ – in the literal sense of planning a family – I have learned that it’s unwise to predict anything. And one of the advantages of being in the grandma generation is that you can look back and see what happened to family plans, and how surprisingly things turned out.
A couple I knew who had fulfilling careers decided that they wouldn’t have children. All went to plan for the first 10 years of their marriage. They took up yachting and had great fun in various parts of the world. Then one day, they ran into a storm at sea and things looked dicey. The woman turned to the man and said: “If we drowned now, who would care?” That existential moment changed their minds: they started a family.
Hardly anyone in my circle of acquaintances wanted babies in their twenties. Then sometimes women began to wonder if they could have children at all. One friend who was particularly conscientious about taking the contraceptive pill all through her twenties was devastated – and furious – to find that she was unable to conceive. Unsurprisingly, an experienced family-planning doctor told me that quite a few “accidental” pregnancies are actually “fertility-testing” pregnancies. Curiosity about whether the choice really is there is a factor.
Another friend who also had a fabulous career said she’d like to “squeeze in” just one baby before she was 40. It never happened for her. It did for a different pal, who at age 37, and single, suddenly felt the urge for a bambino. She found a willing man, had a child and is now a grandmother of five.
Some people genuinely don’t want children: they take that view when they are young, and stick with it. And studies of childlessness carried out in the 80s and 90s showed that non-parents were often as happy as parents. But a recent study at Heidelberg University, over 16 European countries, took a different view: when children are small, demanding, causing stress and costing money, parents often feel less life satisfaction. Later on, when kids have grown and flown, parents tend to be happier than the childless. The American author Candace Bushnell, who really did live the Sex And The City lifestyle, reflected that age shift. “When I got divorced and I was in my 50s, I started to see the impact of not having children and of truly being alone,” she said. People with children “have an anchor in a way that people who have no kids don’t”.
Sometimes these reflections only come with the passage of time. The boffins who are now promising to extend the menopause by 20 years say they are just offering women the choice to change their minds in their fifties and sixties. (Though mothers in their sixties mean grandparents in their nineties, or later.)
I have also learned never to make assumptions about family circumstances. I once assumed a couple who led an actively adventurous life were childless by choice: then I discovered they had a baby who died, a great sorrow to them. I thought one colleague had two well-spaced children for career reasons – it turned out she had 11 miscarriages.
If people sincerely feel they are serving the environment by not having children, that’s their conviction. But some may be lulled into this movement and later regret it. A couple in Wales, reading about Birthstrike, decided to sacrifice their dream of starting a family because of “the climate and ecological emergency”. Ella Starling said: “The decision hurts. I get a lump in my throat every time I think of not having a family.” She’s only 27: if she longs for a baby, hopefully, she’ll have the time, and the chance, to replace the throat lump with a baby bump.
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